‘Trader’ Jack Adams
Detroit Red Wings, 1927-1962
American Division Titles, 1933-1934, 1935-1937
Prince of Wales Trophies, 1942-1943, 1948-1955
Playoff Appearances: 1929, 1932-1934, 1936-1937, 1939-1958, 1960-1961
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1934, 1936-1937, 1941-1943, 1945, 1948-1950, 1952, 1954-1956, 1961
Stanley Cup Victories: 1936-1937, 1943, 1950, 1952, 1954-1955
It’s hard to picture Jack Adams as the greatest general manager in NHL history when one considers the arrogance, the parsimony, the deliberate cruelty, and his unabashed, insatiable need to control EVERYTHING in his world. It’s hard to proclaim a man who was so excessive in his behaviors the greatest of all time. It’s like rooting for Darth Vader.
The stories about how Adams pinched pennies, traded players, and ruined careers form a major part of hockey folklore.
And yet you have to give the devil his due. Despite all his faults, his outrages, his petty displays of managerial despotism; despite the fact that he single-handedly destroyed one of the greatest dynasties ever established and condemned Red Wings fans to decades of disappointment and frustration created by his legacy, he still emerges as the greatest NHL general manager according to my rating system.
The question is how?
Firstly, Adams had longevity on his side. Although Glen Sather will break his record next week, Jack Adams was the longest serving general manager in NHL history. Adams gave 35 years (nearly half his life) towards managing the Detroit Red Wings. Trader Jack took a year old American franchise that was sickly and pale; nearly on the verge of collapse and made it the greatest American franchise in the NHL. No other American NHL franchise has won as many Stanley Cups as Detroit has.
Adams never owned the Wings but such was his personality and the faith and trust place in him by the late James E. Norris that Adams made the Wings his very own. It was Norris’ money but it was always Adams’ vision and leadership that kept the Wings flying, soaring; leading the way for others to follow.
Secondly, Adams created an organization just as good as Toronto’s (under Conn Smythe) and Montreal’s (under Frank Selke). The Wings farm system scouted, acquired, signed, developed, and produced a wealth of hockey talent that fills whole wings of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Jack Adams was obnoxious, bullying, and egotistical but he recognized hockey talent when he saw it and knew how to exploit it to the fullest; and he was unafraid to allow a player to be innovative (as long as the player got the job done). Adams took big risks in accepting Terry Sawchuk’s unique gorilla crouch style and Glenn Hall’s butterfly approach to goal-tending but in the end the dividends paid off enormously for Adams, the Red Wings, and the game of hockey itself.
Third, Adams created a team that performed brilliantly in the post-season. His Wings reached the playoff 28 out of 35 times under his tutelage. Although Sam Pollock managed more Stanley Cup winners than any other NHL GM, Adams compensated by managing more Stanley Cup finalists than any other NHL GM: an astounding 15 Stanley Cup finals berths—with seven Stanley Cup wins to boot.
Fourth, in addition to being the greatest general manager in NHL history, Jack Adams was also a great hockey coach too. Adams did double duty as head coach while managing the Red Wings franchise from 1927 to 1947. After he stepped down as head coach Adams had a keen eye for hiring coaching talent: Tommy Ivan and Jimmy Skinner both did superlative work for Adams during their reigns as Wings head coach. Sid Abel (his last coaching hire) led the Wings to the 1961 Stanley Cup finals (Adam’s last as GM).
Fifth and last, although Adams never dominated any decade like his peers, he always performed consistently well. According to my rating system he was the fifth best GM of the 1930s (between Leo Dandurand and Tommy Gorman); he was the second best manager of the 1940s (behind Conn Smythe) and the 1950s (behind Frank Selke and if Adams hadn’t dismantled his 1950s dynasty team he stood an excellent chance of being the greatest GM of the 1950s). Adams, also, was the fifth greatest GM of the NHL’s expansion and contraction era (1926-1942) and he was the second greatest manager of the Original Six Era (again behind Frank Selke).
Jack Adams was born in 1895 and was a tough, bruising center as a player. He played for Toronto and the original Ottawa Senators in the NHL and the Vancouver Millionaires in the PCHA. Adams is one of the few people ever to achieve the hockey triple crown of having his name etched on the Stanley Cup as a player, head coach, and general manager.
Adams’ playing career ended in 1927 and it was then he acted on the advice of then NHL President Frank Calder to become the head coach and general manager of the fledgling Detroit franchise. The Wings had already one lackluster season under its belt but the team needed strong leadership to survive.
Adams was the right man for the job; possessing the determination and grit to see the team through the Great Depression (which was destroying other NHL teams) while trying to win hockey games.
Salvation came when James E. Norris bought the team in 1932, renamed the Red Wings, and watched while Adams made the Red Wings into the greatest American franchise in NHL history.
By 1934 the Wings were Stanley Cup finalists; by 1936 they were Stanley Cup champions, repeating, again, in 1937.
When the team became more and more successful Adams began to earn his nickname “Trader Jack”. As long as the Wings farm system could produce phenoms with hall-of-fame potential then Adams could dispense and dispose of any player he pleased.
As each year passed it all became so alarmingly casual. Take for instance his goaltenders. Adams had Johnny Mowers tending goal during the early 1940s but in 1944 Mowers gives way to Harry Lumley who performs excellently but in 1950 he was forced to give way to the young Terry Sawchuk who was the greatest goalie of his time before he, too, was forced to give way to Glenn Hall—who became a goal-tending immortal in his own right. Hall himself was forced to ride the rails to Adams’ favorite dumping grounds: the Chicago Black Hawks.
Adams used the Hawks as a major-league farm club. Whatever surplus talent Adams could not use on his own roster he would send to Chicago until the time was right to reclaim it. If a player earned the ire of Adams then exile to Chicago (the Siberia of the NHL) was certain.
What Adams did was not new in sports. A similar arrangement existed in Major League Baseball during the 1950s when the New York Yankees used what was then called the Kansas City A’s in the same way.
When James E. Norris died in 1952 things slowly began to slip for Adams. Norris had acted as a brake when Adams’ excesses got in the way of progress. Norris could key Adams down and tell him not to make a trade. After 1952 all that changed. Adams bridled under the management of Norris’ daughter Marguerite and helped engineer her removal as Wings governor with Marguerite’s more malleable brother Bruce as her replacement.
By 1955 Adams stood at the pinnacle of his success. He won his final Stanley Cup in 1955 and that same season (according to my rating system) he became the greatest general manager in NHL history when he surpassed Conn Smythe in career value. He was managing one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history. A dynasty young enough to dominate the remainder of the 1950s and quite possibly into the 1960s with the talent it possessed: Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Terry Sawchuk, Alex Delvecchio, Red Kelly, Marcel Pronovost and a supporting cast of players with a vast array of talents.
Instead of nurturing and protecting this dynasty, Adams instead smashed it like a child breaking a favored toy. Adams engineered more blockbuster trades but this time the farm system was no longer there to provide the talent worthy to replace those newly departed players. The rot was setting in but it would take at least a decade before the full effect was felt.
By 1962 Adams had worn out his welcome and was given the ax by Bruce Norris the same way he had given others the ax.
He left a bitter man, never to serve in the NHL again. He died in 1968.